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Orchestra Super Mazembe - Giants of East Africa * CD Cover Art

Orchestra Super Mazembe - Giants of East Africa * CD

Personnel: Katele Aley (vocals).
Liner Note Author: Trevor Herman.
Translator: Orchestra Super Mazembe.
Arranger: Orchestra Super Mazembe.
Orchestra Super Mazembe is a group of Zairian musicians who transplanted to Kenya in the mid-'70s and quickly developed into regional heroes in East Africa over the following few years. This collection, drawn principally from the group's four early '80s LPs (three Kenyan releases and one for Virgin UK), is a wonderful showcase of the group's direct, punchy East African brand of guitar pop grounded in Zairian rhumba. It isn't until the simple, crystalline guitar melody of Tabu Ley Rochereau's "Jiji" that Mazemebe hits their stride and really rock out on the double time finale. But "Gina" is even better with Bukasa wa Bukasas' solo guitar reinforced by woolly dual saxes with a bit of King Curtis/Maceo Parker soul flavor. The arrangement cannily shifts the emphasis from voices to guitars to saxes and back again, dropping the elements in and out in a way that really propels the song forward. The voices impress first on "Mukala Musi" but the guitars and sax comments are right there and when the mid-section rips it up with a sprightly, buoyant feel that genuinely makes you want to dance, you don't have to be any African music expert to understand why Orchestra Super Mazembe was so popular. "Shauri Yako" sports a different, more Zairian melody with soothing vocals and a nice descending chord progression driven by punchy bass and the second guitar is more notable on "Lukasi." But just when Orchestra Super Mazembe start sounding a little more ho-hum on "Loboko" (mostly because you've already heard most of its best musical moves), "Bamama" arrives with a cooler melody and great massed vocals blend to change the flavor again and "Longwai" closes the disc with a short, punchy reprise of their best shots and really good call-and-response vocals. The liner notes are surprisingly vague for an Earthworks release but multiple deaths apparently decimated the group line-up in the late '80s. Giants of East Africa is a great compilation that does nothing to disprove the notes' opening claim that Orchestra Super Mazembe would be far better known had global interest in African and world music taken off five years earlier. Which makes the one glaring omission even harder to fathom: Why on earth isn't the group's absolutely gorgeous, scintillating version of the Buddy Holly via the Beatles hit "Words Of Love" here? ~ Don Snowden

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